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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

February 13, 2023 | 8 min read

The iconic ‘spokescandies’ are back – but did the buzz-generating stunt actually work? Marketing experts debate.

M&M’s Super Bowl saga has come to a close. The brand’s cheery ‘spokescandies’ made their return in a post-game spot aired after Super Bowl LVII on Sunday night. But the meandering stunt may have left some consumers feeling lost, according to marketing experts.

It all started with a divisive announcement in late January that, following controversy over changes to its cartoon mascots’ appearance, M&M's would replace the characters with ‘Bridesmaids’ star Maya Rudolph. The brand said it hoped that Rudolph would be “a spokesperson that Americans can agree on.” The announcement, predictably, reinvigorated an online debate about the culture wars. Some, like A&W Restaurants, seized the opportunity to troll the brand.

Then, the stunt got weirder when the Mars-owned candy brand said it would ditch its old moniker for the new name Ma&Ya’s in honor of Rudolph. Soon, clams were involved, with the brand promising sea-inspired product spinoffs as well as a resolution to the gag on Super Bowl Sunday.

The payoff was an in-game spot that saw the ‘spokescandies’ crying out for help in the background of a bizarre scene in which Rudolph promoted her clam bites. For those who hadn't been closely following along, it was a dud. “The Maya Rudolph ad tested abominably” with consumers, according to Jon Evans, chief customer officer at System1, a global marketing research and effectiveness firm. “We didn’t even think it was possible for a confectionery ad for a major brand to get our lowest score, 1 [out of 5] star.”

Then, a post-game spot confirmed that the iconic characters, which have been around since 1954, are not going anywhere. The spokescandies themselves appeared in a faux press conference delivering a handful of jokes.

While the campaign was ambitious, it also proved confusing. “All of that pre-game attention can sometimes put a brand in a difficult situation of needing to over-deliver with the actual commercial,” says Rick Suter, editor of USA Today’s Ad Meter, which ranks ad performance according to consumer sentiment.

“What brands face is running the risk of a large portion of the audience simply being unaware of what's going on.” He says that while Rudolph is popular and talented, “the punchline is meaningless if fans are overwhelmingly bewildered by the setup.”

Indeed, consumers ended up focusing on the wrong things, says Dr. Karen Freberg, a marketing expert and professor of strategic communications at University of Louisville. “The commercial was built up with anticipation on how the company would respond due to the controversy with their candy mascots – but the build-up to the actual commercial generated the most conversation, rather than the ad.”

Debating the value of purpose in candy marketing

The weight of the cultural debate that M&M’s attempted to satirize made the spotlight a little hotter for the brand, according to experts. Tucker Carlson – and the broader right-wing discourse that rendered M&M’s a target for its ‘woke-washing’ inclusivity strategies – gave M&M’s an opportunity to step up. The brand didn’t rise to the occasion, says Andrew Graham, founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a New York-based PR firm. “Brands do a lot of talking about committing to being purpose-driven and socially aware, and many genuinely are,” Graham says.

“But in this case, M&M’s parent company [Mars] had a platform to act in favor of the values it purports to have, and it didn’t ... The company missed the ‘so what’ part of it all. A brand response to partisan trolling should have some seriousness to it.”

Not everyone agrees. Because a candy brand like M&M’s is not in a natural position to take a stand on social or political issues – the brand got what it was after, says Aaron Kwittken, founder and chairman at strategy and PR agency KWT Global. “For a candy company, the stakes are not very high and all press is good press, unless you have to recall the candy. They make tasty snacks, not life-saving drugs.” Kwittken believes the brand got exactly what it wanted out of the whole ordeal. “M&M’s brilliantly earned media coverage for weeks. I think they knew what they were doing but likely didn’t expect it to get as much traction as it did.”

Still, he says if M&M’s is “being genuine about their commitment to representation and inclusion,” then it should deploy “actual, meaningful DEI actions in its business – not just its creative."

A growing body of research suggests that consumers care more than ever about brands’ values when making decisions in the marketplace. In fact, research by Sprout Social finds that 70% of consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political issues.

With this insight in mind, Graham says this stunt was “a missed PR opportunity. The company should’ve doubled down with some kind of action.”

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A ‘fumble recovery’ for M&M’s

Performance data about the brand’s two ads aired on Sunday reveal completely different reactions. While System1 research found the in-game ad to be a miss, the brand's second ad, featuring the spokescandies' triumphant return, was a win in terms of consumer effectiveness.

"As the game went on, we thought M&M’s had made an all-time fumble,” says System1’s Evans. But lo and behold, the second ad tested “extremely well,” garnering 4.8 out of 5 possible stars. It proved to be “audiences’ most-loved food and beverage ad of the night,” despite airing in a post-game slot.

Ultimately, says Evans, “M&M’s had a lucky escape. They spent their Super Bowl budget on a self-indulgent stunt that audiences hated, and it would have backfired if those same audiences didn’t love the [characters] so much that they’re happy to see them whatever the circumstances.”

The brand itself stands by its decisions. “In past years, we’ve seen the majority of Super Bowl conversation generated in the weeks leading up to the Big Game, so our strategy for this year’s Super Bowl has been to make it about much more than just the 30-second ad,” a Mars Wrigley US spokesperson tells The Drum. “Each element of this campaign was designed to deliver humor through the lens of our purpose, and we wanted to use the weeks leading up to the game to explore a full story arc to engage with consumers. That story ultimately was resolved during and after the game with the return of the iconic M&M’s characters. We look forward to continuing to bring the fun, laughter and entertainment to our fans with an unwavering commitment to purpose.”

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